Films, Friends and Circumcision

June 9 1:00am
I have this love/love relationship with film that I just can’t seem to shake. This weekend I found myself  at Encounters, a 2 week long film festival in Cape Town. A film maker friend of mine was releasing a new piece and invited me to come to the premier. A group of us spent Friday and Saturday night together over loud music, lounge clubs and beer brew samples, critiquing and discussing some of the films we had just watched at the festival.

A picture of a picture. Local brews with film-makers and novelists. (hopefully one day ill be both)
A picture of a picture. Local brews with film-makers and novelists.                 (hopefully one day ill be both)

One film in particular, Ndiyindoda (meaning ‘I Am a Man’ in the Xhosa language), by director-friend Mayenzeke Baza, was particularly controversial in its exploration of a Xhosa coming of age practice: male circumcision. The film was incredibly interesting to me, more so in the dialogue it promoted afterwards and the debates underlying the narration. To provide some context, within the Xhosa tribe boys at age 18 are brought to the “bush” or “mountain” to participate in 21 day “initiation school” in order to pronounce their arrival into manhood. As a part of this practice, the boys are circumcised by a ‘traditional surgeon’, have to spend 10 days without food and water, are given no painkillers and are taught how to be men. The entire school is 21 days long. The controversial part of producing a film of this nature is that this procedure is traditionally kept secret, however the director pointed out the secrecy is much of an illusion, since the practice is widely discussed. The importance though of this topic lays in statistics: there are boys dying from this practice (from septic and dehydration) and some boys are left entirely castrated. The film, though a short, explored some interesting perspectives, inclusive of highlighting the income made by the surgeons off of every circumcised boy ($18US for every cut boy). I spent some time afterwards talking to the filmmaker’s brothers, whose own stories had been the inspiration behind the film.
They explained a few important and insightful things to me, which had me questioning some assumptions I had. All, the brothers and the filmmaker himself, had gone through the procedure. One of the younger brothers, during his initiation witnessed the death of a fellow Xhosa boy who fell dead in his lap. There is a certain degree of stigma surrounding a Xhosa boy who does not go to the mountain and choosing to be circumcised in a hospital is considered worse than death.  New procedures have been put in place with the Ministry of Health that require boys undergo an examination to ensure they are in good health before the circumcision, but the numbers of dying boys maintains. The initiation is not framed as a choice for a Xhosa boy but a necessary process in order to be a man, to get married, to be accepted in the Xhosa community. There is a quote from the documentary, “one could grow up not having had the procedure, he could grow old and be successful, but he will still be a boy”. I wanted to ask the men I spoke with if the procedure, the pain, the risk of death was worth the price of manhood. We spoke for a long while in the lobby of the theatre, me with some beautifully ignorant, superficial questions encircled by a group of Xhosa men patiently educating me. They shared with me the reason boys were not to eat and drink was because the entire process is only partially about the cutting, in fact aside from the time spent resting and healing, boys are taught about manhood and brought through a spiritual journey in which the ancestors are to provide all that they need to survive, to fast, to grow–to become men. This made sense to me as I started to remove this idea of unhealthy starvation and replace it with what they were sharing with me as a part of spiritual sacrifice. But even so, I furthered, why then do some boys die? Why are some left without penises? How do the spiritual leaders and traditional surgeons explain this? These questions I asked to both the group of men/brothers and the filmmaker himself. Truthfully, I don’t remember the filmmakers answer but his younger brother, the one who had witnessed the death, said it was due to negligence. He said that there is someone who is supposed to watch over the boys and check on their wounds 4 times a day but if that person only comes once a day or once every other day then complications can arise. They all told me that they would send their boys to the bush. “Was it worth your manhood?” I asked, “its our tradition, this is our culture” was his response. It was a heavy conversation, I felt a lot of emotion from these men as they talked about how hectic the movie was for them, how personal it felt and why this process will always be a must for Xhosa people. Later I spoke with another fellow who had watched the documentary too and he shared with me that he had almost been castrated himself and that his sister, who was a doctor had saved his penis. He said, “imagine the process that was to make me a man almost took my manhood away and was saved by a woman” (which is significant because women are totally non participants in the ceremony. In fact, as the documentary mentions, even if the father is absent the entirety of the boys life, he will return to take the boy to the bush).

I am torn, as I constantly am between what someone is telling me is right for them and what my mind is telling me. Traditional cultural practice vs the risk of death. But I also realize I’m creating a dichotomy in a topic that is not seen like that in its practice. I have some thoughts about this, but they are still a bit scattered. What do you all think? I’d love to read your comments below.

Further resources:
Ndiyindoda Documentary
Encounters Film Festival 



One thought on “Films, Friends and Circumcision

  1. Hi! The struggle that you’re having isn’t with ethnocentrism in my opinion. It sounds as if the documentary itself aimed to shine light on the dangers of a particular aspect of this ritual, and rightfully so. The practice is something that has been built into this society and in a world where traditions are increasingly lost, that isn’t a bad thing. That being said, the lack of medical attention and care being undertaken is unacceptable, and is clearly something that could and should be remedied. Much like giving out condoms, birth control and clean needles, providing medical services is adding a level of safety to a practice that will be undertaken regardless of its perception or acceptance. There is a safer way…but much like contraceptives, it may be met with some resistance.


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